Weapons of mass destruction: End-Use Control

How to judge which exports might potentially be of concern on end-use grounds.


The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - nuclear, chemical and biological weapons - and missiles for their delivery pose a very serious threat to global stability. A wide range of industrial items and materials can assist WMD programmes. The most critical items appear on the UK Strategic Export Control Lists, which specify goods that are ‘controlled’ for export purposes. However, there are also many less sensitive items which may be licensable if used in a WMD programme.

The UK government has the power to make such items licensable on a one-off basis when they might be used for ‘WMD purposes’. These powers are controlled by the End-Use Control in the Export Control Order 2008. This is 1 of 2 ‘catch-all’ controls, which licences items not formally specified on the Control Lists, the other being the Military End-Use Control.

Checking your exports for weapons of mass destruction items

If you know, or suspect, that your export will be used in a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme or in a WMD delivery system, then you have a legal obligation to contact the Export Control Organisation (ECO) and apply for an export licence.

The WMD End-Use Control can in theory be applied in a very wide range of cases where an end user is involved in WMD in a country outside the European Union (EU). In practice, it is applied sparingly.

Reasons for WMD End-Use Controls

The general effectiveness of national export licensing systems has made it harder for WMD programmes to acquire controlled items. This has sometimes forced potential proliferators to seek equivalent non-controlled goods, which often fall just outside the technical parameters of export control legislation. Also, WMD programmes need to procure items for the overall development of the programme - such as electronics and production equipment - which are not in themselves particularly sensitive and do not normally require an export licence.

As a result, the UK government - in common with other EU countries and members of the international export control regimes - has powers to make items licensable on a one-off basis under the ‘end-use’ or ‘catch-all’ control.

Transfer of technnology

This guidance does not cover the more specialised and associated guidance on the transfer of technology by any means or the provision of technical assistance. You can get further information on the:

Invoking the weapons of mass destruction End-Use Control

If the Export Control Organisation (ECO) is concerned that a shipment will be used in a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme or in a WMD delivery system, they will make a decision on:

  • whether to ‘invoke’ End-Use Control - ie the shipments will require an export licence
  • whether to issue or refuse an export licence

The ECO invokes the control when they become aware that a shipment is being made to an end user about whom they have concerns. This could either be in response to an exporter enquiry made to the ECO or via the ECO’s own information channels.

If the ECO invokes the control, they will give the export a Licence Required on End-Use Grounds (LR-End) rating. They can invoke the control at any time before the goods leave the UK. For example, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) will sometimes detain shipments at a port and consult the ECO on whether an export licence is required.

If you know - or have grounds for suspecting - an intended WMD end-use, you are legally obliged to notify the ECO.

End-User advice

If you already know that your goods are not listed on a UK Strategic Export Control List, but have concerns about the end-use of your export, then you can request advice from the ECO’s End-User Advice Service via SPIRE.

You should note that any advice issued by the ECO’s End-User Advice Service is subject to change and is not an indefinite guarantee. If you have previously received advice under the WMD End-Use Control, this advice only applies:

  • for that specific export
  • to that specific end user
  • only at the time of the application

If the ECO does invoke the end-use control, they will inform you formally by letter or email that you require an export licence before exporting the goods.

Points to note about invoking the End-Use Control

  • invocation of the End-Use Control does not always lead to refusal, so you should not be discouraged from pursuing a licence application
  • if in a future case, for the same or similar goods to the same end-user, you do not apply for advice but apply directly for an export licence, and, if advisers continue to take the view that there are no WMD concerns, then the End-Use Control will not be invoked and the goods will be assessed as being NLR (because they are not on the Control List and the exporter has not been informed)
  • almost identical applications can therefore result in different ratings (NLR/LR-End - licence approved) though the substantive outcomes are the same - in other words, the export can proceed. This is a feature of the way the law works rather than an inconsistency by the ECO
  • it is also possible for different substantive decisions to be taken in respect of similar goods because either the goods are going to a different end-user or new information has come to light about the use/utility of the goods

Assessing applications for exports with potential weapons of mass destruction end-use

Once the Export Control Organisation (ECO) has invoked the End-Use Control, it has to assess whether to grant or refuse a licence.

The ECO does this on the same case-by-case basis as for ‘controlled’ goods which always require a licence. The ECO will assess the risk of weapon of mass destruction (WMD) end-use in relation to your proposed export, taking into account the circumstances of each case.

Goods of concern

Any goods could potentially be of concern. In practice, it tends to be those at a higher level of technical specification which fall within the international non-proliferation regime control lists and guidelines, including the:

Read more about the international non-proliferation and arms control regimes.

This is not a hard and fast rule however, and any items may potentially be refused under the controls. The control does not only apply to exports which may be used directly in a weapon or missile but also ‘in connection with’. This might include:

  • goods that could be used in the development of the infrastructure of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)
  • programme research and development programmes at universities
  • unsafeguarded civil nuclear reactors - where a risk of diversion of fissile material exists
  • civil space programmes which may also be involved in ballistic missile development

Destinations of concern

Procurement for WMD programmes is usually made through entities which are seemingly involved in civilian activities and very often have legitimate non-WMD businesses.

This poses problems in sectors including nuclear power generation, the oil and gas industry, research laboratories, pharmaceuticals and precision engineering where legitimate operations may provide a source of equipment for military programmes. Sometimes, equipment is also procured through trading companies or individuals based in a different country to the one where the WMD programme is located.

The ECO does not generally publish information about the end users of goods for which an export licence has been refused on end-use grounds, except for Iran (see The Iran List). However, exporters can submit a rating enquiry for guidance about whether the ECO has concerns with an export to a particular end user.

Making a suspicious enquiry on your exports

The following examples of suspicious situations could help you spot whether your export may be used in WMD programmes:

  • the customer is reluctant to offer information about the end-use of the items
  • the customer asks that the goods be transferred to a forwarding address in the UK
  • the customer is reluctant to provide clear answers to commercial or technical questions which are normal in routine negotiations
  • an unconvincing explanation is given as to why the items are required, in view of the customer’s normal business or the technical sophistication of the items
  • routine installation, training or maintenance services are declined
  • unusually favourable payment terms such as higher price and/or lump-sum cash payment are offered
  • unusual shipping, packaging or labelling arrangements are requested
  • the customer is new to you and your knowledge about him/her is incomplete
  • the installation site is an area under strict security control or is an area to which access is severely restricted, or is unusual in view of the type of equipment being installed
  • there are unusual requirements for excessive confidentiality about final destinations, or customers, or specifications of items
  • there are requests for excessive spare parts or lack of interest in any spare parts
  • the dealer you are selling to is new to you, or has been evasive about customers
  • the customer or end user is a military or government research body
  • the order itself is unusual in any way, eg the quantity or performance capabilities of the goods ordered significantly exceed, without satisfactory explanation, the amount or performance normally required for the stated end use

Goods for which export licences have been refused on weapons of mass destruction end-use grounds since 2002

Although this is not a definitive list, the following listing provides a guide to the type of goods which have previously been refused an export licence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) end-use grounds.

Types of goods previously refused export licence on WMD end-use grounds

Nuclear Missile Chemical & Biological Weapons
Ceramic materials Accelerometers Biotechnology equipment
Chemical processing equipment A to D converter Chemical agent detection
Cryogenic equipment Aero engines Electrical switching equipment
Dimensional measurement and inspection equipment Aircraft naval equipment Environmental test equipment
Electrical/electronic components Air data test system Filtration equipment
Environmental test equipment Ceramic materials Chemical processing pilot plant
Flow measurement equipment Chemicals  
Gas purification equipment Cranes  
General laboratory equipment Design and manufacturing software  
Image intensifying tubes Dimensional measurement and inspection equipment  
Industrial generators Electric motors  
M/C tools and fabrication equipment Electrical/electronic components  
Materials processing equipment Electronic test equipment  
Materials test and analysis equipment Explosives and propellants  
Non-ferrous metals Ferrous metals  
Particle counters Fibrous/filamentary materials  
Process control equipment Flow measurement equipment  
Pumps Gas purification equipment  
Vacuum equipment General laboratory equipment  
Valves Gyros  
  Hydraulic fluids  
  M/C tools and fabrication equipment  
  Materials processing equipment  
  Materials test and analysis equipment  
  Microwave equipment  
  Non-ferrous metals  
  Pneumatic systems  
  Pressure test equipment  
  Process control equipment  
  Recording equipment  
  Vacuum equipment  
  Vibration test equipment  
  Wind tunnels  

Further information

BIS ECO Helpline: 020 7215 4594 or email

Subscribe to the Export Control Organisation’s Notices to Exporters

Access the ECO Reports and Statistics website